- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 11, 2010

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea is investigating whether dozens of mines that washed up on South Korean shores and killed one man were deliberately floated by North Korea, officials said Wednesday.

About 200 land mines — all in wooden boxes — have been discovered on South Korean shores since late July and Seoul officials earlier believed they were swept down from North Korea by torrential rains.

However, South Korean officials said Wednesday they are having a new look at the mines, two days after North Korea escalated already-high tensions by firing a barrage of artillery into the sea.

“We first thought they were washed away due to rains but a possibility of an (intentional) discharge is raised as a new opinion” by the media, presidential spokeswoman Kim Hee-jung told reporters. “We’re analyzing the situation.”

A spokesman at the National Intelligence Service — the country’s main spy agency — also said it was looking into the possibility. The spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department policy, gave no further details.

Relations between the two Koreas have been tense since the sinking of a South Korean warship in late March that Seoul and the United States blame on North Korea. North Korea flatly denies attacking the ship, which led to the deaths of 46 sailors.

In response, South Korea and the U.S. have launched a series of military drills in the waters off the Korean coast in recent weeks. That prompted North Korean troops stationed on the coast to fire more than 100 rounds of artillery on Monday. Some of the shells landed in South Korean waters.

North Korea also seized four South Korean and three Chinese fishermen aboard a 41-ton South Korean fishing boat off its east coast over the weekend. South Korea’s Red Cross urged their release Wednesday, but Pyongyang has not responded.

The South Korean government hasn’t provided any key evidence showing Pyongyang deliberately floated the mines to a river flowing southward. But South Korea’s media, including the Munhwa Ilbo newspaper, reported Wednesday that the mines could be related to the North’s repeated warning that it would retaliate against the drills by South Korea and the United States.

The paper, citing an unidentified Seoul intelligence official, said that it was the first time that North Korean land mines had been found on South Korean shores even though North Korea regularly suffers flooding.

It also noted that North Korea hasn’t responded to South Korea’s request to take appropriate measures to prevent land mines from being washed downstream to the south.

On July 31, one South Korean man died and another was seriously wounded after a land mine that they picked up while fishing near the Korean border exploded. The land mines can be triggered by a slight pressure.

The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Their 155-mile-long (250-kilometer-long) border is strewn with mines.

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